Aluminium in the water.

October 9th, 2011 by Dr Wheeler

I have now had a few queries regarding the possible health effects from the recent aluminium scare in North Uist. On this occasion I do not have to rely on my reserves of sympathy and empathy however as my family and I have been directly affected – living as we do in the area that has had problems (the water from Grimsay to Scoplaig on the West side has been affected).

I found out about the high aluminium levels in our water supply at the same time as everyone else (Wednesday night). Most doctors will know from seeing dialysis patients during their training that aluminium toxicity is a serious problem to be avoided in that section of the population. But my knowledge beyond that was pretty much zero.

As such I, and by extension we, need to rely on Scottish water and public health to help guide us through the crisis. Hopefully they are accessing expertise at the highest level relating to the issue. I have to say however that I am disappointed at the lack of hard factual evidence concerning the scale of the problem / the effects that it might have on health that have so far been given to the community.

In this information vacuum I am sure that a lot of you will be doing the same as me – googling aluminium to see what the score is. Unfortunately the net is full of the kind of sites that make the medical profession in general despair. A quick search reveals a multitude of poorly researched and hysterical resources about all sorts of environmental toxicities… and it can be hard to separate fact from fiction if you are not used to analysing evidence/ reviewing medical material. I suppose this post is an attempt to a) show that I am trying to keep abreast of the issue, and b) help guide you in a limited way to some resources that may be better than others.

The first thing to say is that as far as I have been told, there is very little chance of the recent water changes causing any acute problems with our health. You need to take in a lot of aluminium to feel acutely unwell, and compared to (for example) the Camelford disaster in 1988 where aluminium levels where hundreds of times higher than recommended, our problems are much less serious. In the severe exposure at Camelford initial symptoms included nausea and vomiting, skin rashes and mouth ulcers – but there haven’t been any of these acute symptoms locally as far as I am aware.

What about long term effects? Again – I think the evidence is in general reassuring (with caveats which I will come to). Although there is some controversy over the issue (litigation has continued for many years in Cornwall) repeated reviews over time have suggested that there have been no clear cut long term effects on health from that incident. Particular concern has been raised over the years about possible issues with cognitive function including dementia like syndromes. On this point I would direct people to the statement regarding the issue on the Alzheimer’s society website –

‘There is no conclusive medical or scientific evidence of a link between aluminium and Alzheimer’s disease. There have been three independent scientific enquiries into the Camelford incident, none of which have found a causal link with dementia.
Whilst this is a sad and tragic incident, it should not lead to wider panic. Aluminium is one of the most abundant minerals in the world, and worldwide research has not found any evidence that exposure to everyday levels of aluminium is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.
The Alzheimer’s Society offers help and support to families affected by dementia throughout the country and we would be happy to offer advice to any families living in the Camelford area.
We still do not know what causes Alzheimer’s disease, and until this time the Alzheimer’s Society supports all research into potential causes and cures.’

So – in summary. This acute exposure to excess aluminium should have minimal if any short term health effects.

The long term health effects from aluminium exposure of a short duration also seem to be limited if we can rely on the extensive research that has been carried out over the years into Camelford, but in the process of my research I have come across some concerning information about aluminium exposure over the longer term which I will outline in another post later today.

As most of you will now know – Scottish water will be holding drop in sessions -Monday 10 October and Tuesday 11 October at Paible Primary School, Ashdail Cottages, from 4pm to 7pm to answer questions that you have, and I believe representatives from public health will be in attendance also.

In the meantime if you have any significant physical symptoms of any nature – the advice as always is to phone the practice and seek advice.

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